Hollywood loves putting New York on the big screen
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New York is a city full of hustle and bustle, making it Hollywood’s favourite location for both contemporary comedy or hard-hitting drama. Here are some of the city’s finest moments on screen
New York is cinema’s favourite city in the world – it is a city filled with incident, music and drama. It photographs well and behaves like an active character in the story rather than just a piece of set dressing.
A quick wander through any film book which brings together cinema’s greatest movies will reveal the staggering number of films which have been set in this thriving east coast metropolis – it has much more screen time than either Los Angeles or Washington DC because they are ‘industry’ towns for entertainment and politics. New York offers a cross-section of life and as such stories from The Big Apple are relatable and can be exported around the world.
Here is a look at New York on film – Hollywood’s global city
The Age of Innocence, dir: Martin Scorsese, starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Winona Ryder, Michelle Pfeiffer (1993)
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The early days of New York, when New York society tried to emulate British aristocracy and the leading families set up businesses and married their daughters off to one another. Being respectable and marrying into the right families was almost more important here than it was in London. Distinct change of pace for director Martin Scorsese but the brutality and single-mindedness for getting the job done which he showed in Mean Streets and Good Fellas is equally on display here but the turn of the knife is delivered in a more subtle way.
Interestingly, thanks to the marvels of CGI and matt paintings, Scorsese gets to show those New York Mean Streets and various world famous landmarks under construction.
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On The Town; dir: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly; starring: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett (1949)
Three sailors on shore leave want to experience everything that the city has to offer before they are forced to reluctantly return to their ship. Not only was this Gene Kelly’s first big musical as a director, it was also the first big musical to be shot on location. Musicals were usually shot on the studio backlot in LA because of the need to control the music and the complexity of the dance routines but Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen insisted that the New York sightseeing and dockyard sequences were actually shot in New York.
On The Town is a cinematic time capsule showing audiences exactly what New York in 1949 looked like and with songs like New York, New York (What A Beautiful Town) the city really is a character in the story.
Midnight Cowboy; dir: John Schlesinger; starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles (1969)
If On The Town was a celebration of everything that was upright, clean and decent about The Big Apple, Midnight Cowboy took cinema audiences on a journey to the otherside of the tracks, to a network of dark alleys and shady hotel rooms and introduced us to hustlers and grifters, people barely getting by in this common story of life on the streets in the late ‘60s.
Propelled by Schlesinger’s sensitive storytelling and a pair of dynamite performances by Hoffman and Voight (not to mention John Barry’s iconic score) this is a film in which New York City took centre stage as a place where dreams could come true, no matter how poor you were, provided you had street smarts and knew how to work an angle.
Manhattan; dir: Woody Allen; starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep (1979)
If the title wasn’t enough to tell you that this was a real love letter to New York, then the poster depicting the Brooklyn Bridge, the presence of Woody Allen and a score featuring George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (written about the thrill of living in the east coast metropolis) should have left viewers in no doubt.
Smart, witty, almost European in form and outlook, this film, shot in stark black and white, really underlined the multi-cultural lifestyle enjoyed by New Yorkers in the 1970s, along with plenty of urban angst. Woody Allen has fallen out of favour these days after a messy private life but his best work remains as engaging as ever.
Ghostbusters; dir: Ivan Reitman; starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis (1984)
Blessed with one of the catchiest theme tunes of all time, this movie was not only a fun ghost-story but was a New York adventure which brought the city’s legendary skyscrapers right into the centre of the story. Filmed on the busy streets of New York, the city comes across not only as a vibrant centre of humanity, but also somewhere that harbours a dark secret, where our frailties can be our undoing. But, humanity is saved not only by New Yorkers resiliency but also by their tough, irreverent sense of humour.
Wall Street; dir: Oliver Stone; starring: Michael Douglas, Charlie Sheen, Daryl Hannah, Martin Sheen (1987)
After eight years of Reagan economics, this was the film that coined the phrase ‘Greed is Good’ – the mantra which defined the decade for those who worked on Wall Street, creators of America’s wealth and global influence.
Michael Douglas was Gordon Gecko, the ruthless dealer and speculator in stocks and shares and Charlie Sheen, the wide-eyed intern who appears to be Gecko’s heir apparent. But, just how ruthless is this young buck prepared to be to get to the top? This is New York at its most corrupt.
Fame; dir: Alan Parker; starring: Eddie Barth, Irene Cara, Lee Curreri, Gene Anthony Ray (1980)
It took an Englishman in New York, namely director Alan Parker to fully realise the youthful creativity that simmered on the streets of this remarkable city. New York may be home to big business and to a shady side-street hustlers but it’s also home to a wonderful number of actors, singers and dancers who get their first taste of professional development at the acting schools and music academies which feed into the theatres and arts companies which provide the beating heart of American culture.
Theatre doesn’t have much impact in the US outside New York but, make no mistake, it forms a vital part of the city’s make-up and Hollywood raided Broadway’s finest actors when the talkies arrived in the early 1930s.
Fame was a modern musical, filmed on the streets of New York about youngsters wanting their moment in the spotlight as they graduated from Performing Arts School – they wanted Fame – they wanted to live forever.
When Harry Met Sally; dir: Rob Reiner; starring: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby (1989)
From a stand-out script by Nora Ephron, Rob Reiner crafted a piece of modern movie magic which told an on-off love story spanning a decade as a pair of college students quarrel and bicker, meet up, fall in and out of love, becomes friends, break-up and come back together again against a backdrop of baseball, bookstores, Christmas parties and traditional New Year’s Eve ‘moments’ in Times Square.
It’s all about the romance that New York conjures up and the life that engaging people can enjoy providing they are clever and witty enough.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, dir: Marielle Heller; starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells (2018)
Stars Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant romp through this delightful story of drunken deceit as failing writer Lee Israel (McCarthy) forges literary memorabilia to pay her bills and is egged on by Richard E Grant’s louche lay-about who sees the whole enterprise as an entertaining jape.
The underlying sadness of this real-life story is redeemed by both actors bravura performances and the humanity contained within the story. It provides a touching window on how New York’s literary trends have swiftly changed in the 21st century leaving established writers high and dry.
The French Connection; dir: William Friedkin; starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey (1971)
The Godfather; dir; Francis Ford Coppola; starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan (1972)
Serpico; dir: Sidney Lumet; starring: Al Pacino, John Randolph, Jack Kehoe (1973)
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3; dir: Joseph Sargent; starring: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam (1974)
Taxi Driver; dir: Martin Scorsese; starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybill Shepherd (1976)
A cluster of top-flight crime drama. In the 1970s, New York became synonymous with tales of life on the wrong side of the tracks. It was a world where you had to fight fire with fire and it was difficult to see whether the cops were any different to the gangsters. To some it could be argued that the gangsters at least had a code of honour, even if you didn’t agree with it.
On the other hand the cops had to be resourceful to catch their man as in The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 or even become a psychologist to understand the damaged individual in Taxi Driver.
This wave of inspired crime drama defined the look and feel of New York’s image on screen for more than a decade.